German lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to recognize the World War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide, triggering an angry reaction from Ankara.
"The resolution adopted by the German parliament will seriously impact relations between Germany and Turkey," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said shortly after the vote during a news conference, adding that, after the recall of the country's ambassador to Germany for consultations, the government would discuss what steps Ankara would take in response. Erdogan spoke in Nairobi while on a visit to Kenya.
Turkey summoned Germany's charge d'affaires to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara after the German parliament's vote.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the two countries have broad, friendly and strategic ties despite a “difference of opinion on an individual matter.”
Speaking at a joint news conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Berlin, Merkel said that Germany supported dialogue between Turkey and Armenia and sought good relations with Ankara.
Ankara's options seen as limited
Turkish government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus called the German vote a “historical mistake” and said Turkey's response to Berlin would be made in various forums. But with Germany being Turkey’s biggest trading partner and home to 3 million ethnic Turks, political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University said Ankara's room to maneuver is limited.
"Turkish-German relations are much too big to be impacted by this. Of course there will be all sorts of nationalist propaganda for internal purposes. But I am sure the Turkish authorities will stop short of going further than that," Aktar said.
Activists and the leader of the Anerkennung Jetzt (Recognition Now) civil society initiative, Ilias Uyar (bottom, 2nd R), react after German lawmakers voted to recognize the Armenian genocide after a debate in the Bundestag, in Berlin, June 2, 2016.
Ankara strongly denies the genocide charge, claiming the deaths of ethnic Armenians occurred in a civil war. It also says Armenians' claims that over 1.5 million people died is exaggerated. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara accused Berlin of seeking to cover up its own dark past.
The controversy comes as Ankara is playing a key role in helping the European Union to reduce the number of arriving migrants. A main beneficiary of that deal is Berlin. But observers say it is unlikely Ankara would use the migrant agreement against Berlin as Ankara is pressing Brussels for visa-free travel for its citizens.
Sensitive issue for Turks
But the genocide controversy remains a sensitive issue for Turkish nationalists, a powerful voting constituency in Turkey. Political columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper warns with over 20 countries now recognizing the Armenian genocide claims, Ankara is finding itself increasingly isolated, but says Turkey’s political leadership is trapped by its past.
"We are where we are today, because of this wrong attitude. This hardcore denialist attitude. Which in fact is only on the government side. As you see in Turkish society, the taboos relating to this subject are being broken down. I mean even the genocide is being commemorated even in Turkey now, without anyone attacking the demonstrators," Idiz said.
Until a few years ago, anyone in Turkey claiming that there had been an Armenian genocide would be subject to prosecution. In 2007, Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor, was murdered by a Turkish nationalist gunman for calling on Turkish society to face up to its past. Observers say today in Turkey people are openly delving into the country’s difficult past, but with the president whipping up Turkish nationalist sentiments, questions remain on how long this new process will continue.